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State of MOOCs: how free online college learning challenges higher education

The question is whether this inevitable and exciting step toward wider access will disrupt higher education in unforeseen ways.

Students at Temple University's primary computer lab.

Universities across the country are implementing Massive Open Online Courses and providing students, as well as the general public, with low cost, often free, access to their educational resources. Like the print news industry in the 1990s, the question is whether this inevitable and exciting step toward wider access will disrupt higher education in unforeseen ways.

The MOOC movement is rapidly bringing more college courseware, video lectures and other materials online from universities across the country. In many cases, there is no enrollment cost. The only criteria for enrollment in a class is a working Internet connection.

Locally, this rush is playing out in its own way, the levels of engagement challenged and some colleges staying on the sidelines.

Though the mission of offering access to expensive, advanced degrees is a powerful one, there are critics that go beyond the financial. The biggest issue surrounding MOOCs is that no one knows how effective, if at all, they really are.

Many detractors point to high withdraw rates and low completion rates as a sign that MOOCs are not a viable alternative to traditional brick and mortar classes. But those associated with the MOOCs feel as though those objections are misguided.

Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton and the creator of the school’s most successful MOOC, Gamification, sees the new style of education as an addition to conventional universities, not an instead of.

The most obvious example of that is the fact that in almost all instances MOOCs do not count for college credit. In some cases, like with Werbach’s Gamification class, students can pay a small nominal fee and receive a certificate of completion upon finishing the course, but that is more so the exception than the rule. So in their current state, MOOCs should be looked at as a means of getting free learning, not a free diploma.

But that doesn’t mean MOOCs can’t play an integral role is the pursuit of a college degree.

“There are situations where students are taking MOOCs as kind of a study aid,” Werbach said. “You’re taking a history class in person and there’s a MOOC on that same area of history, [so] you can take that MOOC as an additional way of understanding the material.”

Werbach also pointed to the fact that those who immediately point at enrollment to course completion ratios as a sign that this is a failing system are missing the bigger picture.

In his most recent semester of Gamification, Werbach estimated that he had roughly 82,000 individuals enroll in the course with about 8,300 of them completing it. While most may see a completion rate of just over 10 percent as a failure, Werbach could not disagree more.

matthew baxter

Temple university student Matthew Baxter is using an online course site to strengthen his knowledge in statistics.

“I’ve taught at Wharton for 10 years and in that time I’ve maybe taught 2,000 students, the most senior faculty member at Wharton has probably taught maybe 7,000 in their entire career,” Werbach said. “ And I did that in one session just counting the people that finished the class, so that’s exciting to me.”

Another aspect of MOOCs that has been placed under the microscope as of late is how effective they are in reaching anyone who doesn’t already have a college degree.

When the concept was first gaining traction, one of its main selling points was that it was going to provide education, and by extension opportunity to those who might not have it otherwise. MOOCs were even being hailed as instrument that could help bridge the poverty gap. But according to Penn research, more then 80 percent of individuals enrolled in MOOCs are already college educated.

Werbach sees this data as nothing new, and more to that point, slightly short sighted.

“Not everyone in the world that has a college degree is rich,” Werbach said. “And even a minority of all MOOC participants [without degrees] is still millions of people.”

Regardless of who is taking the classes, Dr. Darin Kapanjie, who led Temple’s Fox School class this fall, echoes the idea that there are a great deal more to MOOCs then just completion rates.

Kapanjie and those at the Fox School of Business did not create the MOOC in hopes of seeing high completion rates (although the class did end with a little more than 10 percent of enrollees seeing it all the way through) or even as just a means of providing content to the masses. Their motivation was much more promotional in nature, he said.

“We at the Fox School go into the MOOC space as a means of [it being a] marketing and recruiting tool,” Kapanjie said. “The idea was that students would take the course, enjoy it and then hopefully enroll in our program.”

While completion does still not garner one any credits, if a students does in fact decide to enroll in the paid online MBA program after finishing the MOOC, they will be rewarded for their efforts.

“[The MOOC] does come with a course waiver upon completion,” Kapanjie said. “So if students enrolled in our program then they wouldn’t have to take those three credits in the online MBA and they don’t have to substitute another three credits which I know some other institutions were doing. Our MOOC is essentially a 100 percent free course.”

The college experience, of meeting peers and mentors in person, of living in a new place and transitioning into adulthood, of validating your time with a certificate or diploma, is meant to be a different experience than what free access can offer. That’s a compelling argument, even if it might remind some of how print media underestimated the Internet.

“Universities really need to think about what is it that we do well here,” Werbach said. “And then how do we integrate in what is available outside of our walls.”

Companies: Coursera / Temple University / University of Pennsylvania
People: Kevin Werbach
Projects: Philadelphia Neighborhoods

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